Deeper Worship through Tradition: How the Church Calendar Can Enhance Easter
- Saturday, March 01, 2008
On his fourth Easter morning, I woke Nate up to get ready for church. “What’s today?” I began our rehearsed conversation. We had worked on this.
He rubbed his eyes, paused a moment, then exclaimed, “It’s Easter!”
“Yes!” I was so proud he remembered.
Sounding like a cheerleader, I prompted, “And what does that mean?”
He jumped out of bed and beamed.
Not the answer we had worked on. Some cultural traditions are, apparently, harder to break than others.
Nate’s childish understanding of Easter reflects the influence that society has exerted on a uniquely Christian celebration. The enormity of Christ’s resurrection has been whittled down to fertility symbols, commercial profit, and family gatherings.
How can we regain a proper appreciation for Easter? Is there a way to re-crown it as the rightful centerpiece of our faith, the ultimate day of worship?
I believe future success lies in remembering, and recapturing, the past. We have an ancient-yet-still-practical tool designed for that very purpose. The annual Church calendar parallels the life of Christ, preparing for and celebrating significant events through “holy days”—sacred time set aside to worship God for His unique work. The Advent season preludes the Christmas season, Lent prepares us for Easter, special days in Jesus' life are highlighted. Some denominations utilize the calendar consistently; others acknowledge the major seasons. Yet others ignore it altogether. Yet all recognize that Easter is the pinnacle of Christians' worship and celebration of God's work.
Learning from the Past
The church calendar finds its origin in the Jewish pattern of feasts and holy days, which the Lord established to celebrate significant events in the Israelites' history. Passover commemorates the great deliverance from Egypt, when the Lord's messenger of death "passed over" those homes whose doorposts showed lamb's blood. The Feast of Unleavened Bread follows immediately, to remind the Jews how they left Egypt in such haste they could not even add yeast to their bread, for there would be no time for it to rise.
The next feast, First Fruits, was instituted on the day after the Sabbath that followed their first Passover in the Promised Land. On that day, the people offered the Lord the “first fruits” of their barley, the first grain harvest of the spring season. Just imagine the hope and joy the people must have been feeling during those first days after finally reaching the Promised Land. The Lord had been faithful to them! He had given them new life free from slavery, a new land in which to become a great nation, a new identity as the people of God.
As a sign of their gratitude for His past provision, and faith in His future blessing, each year the people would bring the first sheaf of grain to the priest, who would wave it aloft before the Lord. This grain symbolized the best of that which would give them life—barley and wheat (offered weeks later at Pentecost) were staples of the agricultural lifestyle the Israelites enjoyed. The grain was then left for the priest and for the poor. No one was to eat from the new harvest until the wave offering was made.
Jesus the First Fruits
The New Testament reveals Jesus' connection to the Feast of First Fruits.
In the week of Jesus' crucifixion, He was arrested Thursday night after celebrating the Passover meal, and He was crucified the following afternoon before the end of Passover. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began the next day, which happened to be the Sabbath. The Feast of First Fruits naturally fell the day after that. And on that day, Jesus rose victorious from the grave.
While the Jewish lunar calendar moves the dates of the feasts regularly so that First Fruits and Easter are not always on the same day, the significance (and sometimes the date) of our “holy day” of Easter corresponds directly with the Jewish holiday of First Fruits. Jesus is the first fruit of eternal life, the wave offering to God. Jesus' resurrection is the assurance of our resurrection. It is the promise that we will not see eternal death, but share in eternal life.
Paul explains it better:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power… (1 Corinthians 15:20-25)
The Jewish readers of this letter would have immediately understood the connection Paul was making between Christ and the Feast of First Fruits. Now when they celebrated that feast, they would imbue it with even greater significance.
In a similar way, celebrating holy days—scheduled reminders of God's work through Christ—can make our worship more meaningful. Structure need not be stifling. Done right, it can be liberating!
These traditions also provide a means for teaching our children the redemption story. On Nate’s fifth Easter morning, we went through the routine again. “What’s today?” I asked.
“Easter!” he giggled. As in, don’t you know that, Mom?
“What’s that mean?” I prompted, not sure what I would hear this time.
He shouted, “Jesus is alive again!”
I had to fight back the tears. Yes, Jesus is risen.
He is risen indeed.
Kelley Mathews, Th.M. (Dallas Theological Seminary), married and blessed with three young children, spends her spare time freelancing as a writer and editor. She served several years as the Women’s Ministry Director at Rowlett Bible Fellowship. Her newest book release is Mixed Ministry: Working Together as Brothers and Sisters in an Oversexed Culture, which can be found on her web site www.newdoors.info.
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